Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on July 1, 2015.

"THE ASBESTOS CURTAIN! For God’s sake, don’t anybody know how to lower this curtain?”

So cried the actor Eddie Foy from the stage of Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre on December 30, 1903, as the terrified audience struggled to evacuate the building. A fire had started on the stage during the second act of the matinée, Mr. Bluebeard, when a stage light short-circuited and ignited a drop curtain. The fire spread to the front of the house, and from there moved quickly to the flammable scenery and stage props. Two stagehands tried to extinguish it, but the flames were already too large for them to control.

The audience nearest the stage could see the flames, and someone eventually yelled, “Fire!” The crowd began to head for the exits and, as Foy later recalled in a memoir, “already show[ed] signs of a stampede—those on the lower floor were not so badly frightened as those in the more dangerous balcony and gallery.”

Foy called for the curtain, but it stopped two-thirds of the way down, one end snagged on a wire. A draft coming from the stage door, through which the actors were fleeing, blew the slack of the curtain in a wide arc out into the auditorium as smoke and flame shot around the sides of the curtain. Then came what observers described as “a cyclonic blast of fire” from the stage into the auditorium. The panic among the fleeing occupants began in earnest.

By the time it was over, nearly 600 people were dead, most of them in the balcony and gallery. Many of the victims were women and children who had taken advantage of the Christmas holidays to travel downtown to see the play. As Foy later said, he had never seen so many women and children in the audience. The death toll eventually reached 602, making the Iroquois the deadliest assembly and nightclub fire in the country’s history.

The post-fire investigation of the Iroquois Theatre revealed that the building, on which construction had not yet been completed, was far from “fireproof,” as the builder claimed. Of the 30 exits, 27 had been locked and few of them were marked. There were no fire escapes, alarms, sprinklers, telephones, or water connections. The only provisions for firefighting were six canisters of a dry chemical used to put out chimney fires.

As for the asbestos curtain Foy so desperately wanted? It was made of paper and wood pulp. It could not have stopped the worst theater fire in U.S. history even if it had been lowered all the way.

KATHLEEN ROBINSON is NFPA Journal editorial operations manager.